Doug Wilson adds a postscript to his earlier remarks about N. T. Wright’s misinterpretation of key biblical texts concerning gender roles. In particular, Wilson turns his guns on Wright’s translation of 1 Timothy 2:12, and in light of this I would add a postscript to my earlier remarks as well. According to a 2004 conference address, Wright offers this translation:
I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; they should be left undisturbed (1 Tim. 2:12).
My main point of contention here is that Wright employs an English idiom that has no basis in the Greek text. The idiom is the one that starts with, “I’m not saying that…”
In English, “I’m not saying that” is a cagey expression that one uses to conceal rather than to reveal a particular course of action. For example, if a politician says in an interview “I’m not saying that I am running for reelection,” we all know that neither is he saying that he won’t run for reelection. “I’m not saying” simply indicates that the politician isn’t ready or willing to show his cards yet on that question.
Is that how Paul is speaking in 1 Timothy 2:12? In the Greek text, it’s reasonably clear that Paul is not speaking this way. Yes, there has been a great deal of controversy about the interpretation of this text, but Wright introduces a novelty here that really hasn’t been a part of that conversation.
The term that Paul actually uses here is the Greek word epitrepo. In the NT it typically means “to allow” or “to permit.” It’s a word that describes what an authority will or will not permit a person to do who’s in a subordinate position (cf. Mt 8:21; 19:8; Mk 10:4; Lk 8:32a; 9:59, 61). It’s the same word that’s used in 1 Corinthians 14:34, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.”
Likewise in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul is saying that he does not allow/permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man. Whatever one wants to say about the meaning of “teach” or “exercise authority”—and believe me, there’s been a ton of ink spilled over this—the meaning of epitrepo is fairly straightforward. It means to allow or to permit.
Wright’s translation completely obscures the certainty with which Paul makes this prohibition. Consider the meaning of Wright’s translation: “I’m not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them.” In this interpretation, it’s as if Paul is not weighing-in at all on the matter of teaching and authority. He’s just trying to tell folks not to bother the women while they’re trying to learn. This interpretation is so far afield from Paul’s actual words, we must conclude that Wright’s translation distorts what St. Paul really said.
If this is Wright’s interpretation, it’s no wonder that he so quickly dismisses 1 Timothy 2:12 as relevant to the debate about gender roles within the church. If he were right, this verse would be tangential to the conversation. But he’s not right, and that’s why for almost everyone else studying this 1 Timothy 2:12 is still right at the center of things.